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Mark Waugh’s exquisite grace and steely determination floors South Africa at Port Elizabeth

Mark Waugh was in sublime form in the Test match played at Port Elizabeth against South Africa in 1996-97 © Getty Images (File Photo)
Mark Waugh was in sublime form in the Test match played at Port Elizabeth against South Africa in 1996-97 © Getty Images (File Photo)

Mark Waugh scored a match-winning unbeaten 116 on March 17, 1997. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at an innings that combined exquisite grace with steely determination.

The most elegant of batsmen have often been criticised for not being among the most efficient. When on song there have been few better sights than these men. It is probably after watching them in full flow that CP Snow had made his immortal comment “Drinking the best tea in the world in an empty cricket ground — that, I think, is the final pleasure left to man.”

What happens when these men come to the forefront to win or save Tests? There can perhaps be no finer sight in the sport when that occurs — and it is not a rare sight as most think. On St George’s Park that day Mark Waugh had pulled off something of that quality. It was, indeed, a sight for sore eyes — of connoisseurs and historians alike.

 

New Wanderers: 385 and all that

As has always been the case with encounters between Australia and South Africa since the latter’s readmission to international cricket, this series was supposed to be a humdinger of sorts. The first Test at New Wanderers, however, turned out to be a one-sided affair.

South Africa had a tough time after Glenn McGrath’s initial blows (he took the first four wickets, reducing the hosts first to 25 for three and then to 78 for four); he finished with four for 77 as the hosts were reduced to 195 for eight. Dave Richardson then came to the rescue with an unbeaten 72 in 87 balls, helping South Africa reach 302 in the company of Allan Donald and Paul Adams.

The hosts had probably thought they stood with a chance when the tourists were reduced to 174 for four by the second evening. Unfortunately for them, Steve Waugh and Greg Blewett batted out the entirety of Day Three, adding 288 in a day’s play. When Steve Waugh was finally caught-behind off Jacques Kallis, he had scored 160 and the partnership had amounted to 385 — still the record for the fifth wicket.

Blewett fell soon afterwards for 214, and Mark Taylor declared the innings closed with a 326-run lead. South Africa collapsed to 130 against Shane Warne and Michael Bevan, who took four wickets apiece (Warne got Darryl Cullinan). It was the first time since 1963-64 that Australia had managed to go up in a series against South Africa.

Day One: a Dizzy Day

The pitch was as green as the outfield, and Taylor has no hesitation in batting first. Wisden wrote: “The key was the pitch, which had such a thick mat of grass that it looked like an Essex ground of the 1950s, Westcliff or Clacton maybe. It was automatic that Taylor would bowl.”

Surprisingly, Taylor went in with an unchanged team, counting on Blewett and Steve Waugh for their medium-pacers. South Africa brought in Adam Bacher, Herschelle Gibbs, and most significantly (given the pitch) Brian McMillan, leaving out Andrew Hudson, Jonty Rhodes, and Lance Klusener.

Disaster struck for South Africa early when Jason Gillespie bowled an impeccable line and length, moving the ball at great speed: he removed Gary Kirsten and Kallis for ducks; McGrath came to the party as well, removing Bacher and Hansie Cronje, the latter for a duck as well; South Africa were reduced to 22 for four in the first hour on a pitch they had doctored themselves.

Cullinan and Gibbs put up a resistance of sorts, but the untiring Gillespie removed the former after a 48-run partnership; he then ran through Gibbs’ defence, and in the very next ball, trapped Shaun Pollock leg-before, picking up his first Test five-for. South Africa were left reeling at 95 for seven: they desperately needed a good partnership.

The resistance came from the reliable and experienced duo of McMillan and Richardson; they managed to see McGrath and Gillespie off, and kept on thwarting Warne, who bowled beautifully on a surface that had nothing for wrist-spin. Taylor even turned to Bevan and Blewett, but the pair kept going.

The pair added 85 in 116 minutes before Warne struck — and struck thrice. McMillan was left stranded on 55 as Warne took out Richardson, Donald, and Adams; the hosts were bowled out for 209. Before stumps, however, Pollock managed to take out Matthew Hayden for a duck, and Australia finished on ten with Taylor on seven and Matthew Elliott on one.

Day Two: South Africa strike back

It was all Pollock for the first half hour: he had Taylor caught-behind, tore a hamstring after figures of 6-3-6-2, and never bowled in the match. Thereafter Australia capitulated against some fine seam bowling; all six bowlers used got wickets; nobody crossed 25; and Australia were bowled out for 108 in a painstaking 70.4 overs, their second-lowest score against South Africa at that time.

Starting with a lead of 101 runs, Kirsten and Bacher batted cautiously and finished the day un-separated with the former on 41 and his partner on 38. They had already obtained a 184-run lead; had they batted the tourists out of the Test?

Day Three: Dizzy comes to party again

Once again it was Gillespie who broke through by clean bowling Kirsten: the pair had added 87 in 138 minutes. Bacher ran out Kallis and got out shortly afterwards; Gillespie also removed Cullinan, and suddenly South Africa found themselves at 100 for four.

Cronje was the only one to show some discipline as wickets fell all around him; with survival becoming difficult with every passing over, The injured Pollock hit out lustily, but Warne and Bevan claimed the last five wickets between them: South Africa lost their last ten wickets (several of them to inexplicably high-risk strokes) for 81 and were bowled out for 168. Australia needed 270.

Taylor and Hayden got them off to a scratchy start before the captain fell; with 30 on the board, Elliott and Hayden both dashed for a single — but for the same end, bringing Mark Waugh to the crease. Mark Waugh took his time, but once he got his eyes in, runs came from both ends with Elliott playing a good supporting hand.

When Cronje surprised him with a rare, nippy bouncer Waugh, never a compulsive hooker, executed the stroke to perfection, bisecting deep fine-leg and deep mid-wicket for four; when Donald pitched one up, Mark Waugh moved his weight on to the front foot and played that trademark flick past mid-wicket.

With Pollock ruled out, Donald was obviously the main threat for the hosts; Waugh played a glorious (almost unfashionable today) off-drive off him, and when Cronje introduced Adams he strode out forward and lofted him over mid-wicket for a six. Almost immediately he slashed out at him, and the thick edge reached the boundary at great speed.

He lost Elliott (who hit one back at Adams), but played McMillan off his pads and square-cut him off one that came extremely close to his body for two more boundaries. He seemed to have been batting on a different pitch from the others, making batting look ridiculously easy.

Yet another square-cut off a Cronje delivery that was close to his body rushed to the fence for a four to bring up his fifty in 87 balls; 38 of these runs had come in boundaries. The ended with Mark Waugh on 54 and his twin on 11: they still required 125 with seven wickets intact.

Day Four: A blend of technique and elegance

Mark Waugh began Day Three with another square-cut four off McMillan. What followed next was perhaps the finest stroke of the match: McMillan pitched an off-cutter on length that came in slightly; there were a slip and a gully, but the deftest of steers bisected them and reached the fence. It was placement at its immaculate best.

Cronje got White Lightning on, and a ball on impeccable line and length was met with an off-drive so well-placed that it went past the right of mid-off; Adams met with a similar treatment as he caressed the ball through extra-cover. Kallis removed Steve Waugh, but his twin hit him exquisitely past cover for another boundary.

Donald came round the wicket, and played the double-bluff by placing fielders in the fine-leg boundary and trying to bowl a slow yorker, but Waugh was quick to respond and on-drove him for four. Adams bowled Blewett just before the second new ball was claimed, reducing Australia to 192 for five, but Waugh stepped out and lofted him with disdain over mid-off for four.

Cronje claimed the new ball, but McMillan was cut, ever so elegantly, past point for another boundary. The stroke also brought up his hundred — perhaps the finest of his career. It had taken him 198 balls, and had included 66 runs in boundaries; he celebrated it with a square-cut off Donald.

With Bevan holding one end up, Mark Waugh kept the score going; Australia crossed 250, and almost immediately hit a glorious cover-driven four off Adams. Cronje brought on Kallis, and then, almost like the gale that takes the last flower of the winter with it, a ball came into Mark Waugh and bowled him through the gate.

He walked off without much expression on his face having scored 116 of the finest runs ever made. “Stern defence was twinned with innate elegance after he (Mark Waugh) arrived in a crisis — 30 for two,” wrote Wisden of his masterpiece.

Australia needed 12, and unfortunately for them, Cronje removed Bevan at the other end without the addition to the score; the situation got tense when Kallis trapped Warne leg-before. As Gillespie walked out to bat Australia needed five with two wickets in hand.

Almost a hundred yards back George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes had done it “in singles”. Ian Healy, however, had other ideas: when Cronje came on from the other end he hoicked him over long-leg for a six to seal the Test.

What followed?

-          South Africa pulled one back with a consolation eight-wicket victory at Centurion, thanks to some gritty batting, especially from Bacher and Cronje and some hostile fast bowling from Donald and Brett Schultz, who shared 14 wickets between themselves.

-          South Africa are yet to win a Test series against Australia at home since their readmission to Test cricket.

Brief scores:

 

South Africa 209 (Brian McMillan 55, Dave Richardson 47; Jason Gillespie 5 for 54, Shane Warne 3 for 62) and 168 (Adam Bacher 49, Gary Kirsten 43; Michael Bevan 3 for 18, Jason Gillespie 3 for 49) lost to Australia 108 and 271 for 8 (Mark Waugh 116 not out, Matthew Elliott 44; Jacques Kallis 3 for 29) by 2 wickets.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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